Vouchers continue to be a divisive issue for legislators

The use of public tax dollars to send children from public schools to private schools—more commonly known as vouchers—has once again become an issue of contention in the Texas Legislature.

Three voucher bills were discussed during a March 26 Senate Education Committee meeting following nearly eight hours of testimony on the issue.

Vouchers are not a new concept in the public education system. There were several voucher bills filed during the 83rd legislative session in 2013 that moved through the Senate but were struck down in the House, said Teresa Hull, Cy-Fair ISD associate superintendent for communications, governmental relations and chief of staff.

"We're seeing that same trend this session," she said. "Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick makes no bones about his support and push for vouchers."

The number of school choice programs in the United States has grown since 2007 from 16 to 42 programs, said Michael Barba, policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

"One reason it's growing in popularity is that there have been promising results for individual parents in those programs," he said.

Although Cy-Fair ISD officials believe parents should have the option to send their children to private school, it should not be funded by taxpayer dollars, Superintendent Mark Henry said.

"Our biggest [issue] with [vouchers] is there is no accountability in private schools," he said. "They're not subject to the same rules and regulations on hiring teachers or passing state-mandated tests—there's nothing equal about public and private education."

One of the bills discussed during the March 26 committee meeting was Senate Bill 276, authored by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which creates a taxpayer savings grant program to better serve children who attend low-performing public schools.

"This bill is about focusing on the needs of a child determined by the parent by allowing educational dollars to follow the child," Campbell said. "Education needs to be about people, teachers, parents and children and giving families hope by allowing them freedom to choose a school that can make a difference in a child's life by getting them away from a place where their needs are not met."

Students who qualify for the program would receive a grant for a tuition payment at their choice of a private or parochial school. The amount awarded to a student is either equal to the cost of tuition or 60 percent of the state's average maintenance and operations expenditures per student—whichever is less.

Senate Bill 642, filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, provides a franchise tax credit or insurance premium tax credit to businesses that contribute to an educational assistance organization, or nonprofit, which provides scholarships to students for private school tuition.

"This is parental choice," Bettencourt said. "If businesses donate and money is available, it follows the child and the parents can basically use that educational cost to choose the best education for their children, either in public or private schools."

However, CFISD officials have concerns about all voucher bills because they would divert money from the state that would flow to the Foundation School Program, Henry said.

According to the bill analysis, tax credit scholarships were first launched in Florida and Pennsylvania in 2001, and since then 12 other states have implemented similar programs.

During public testimony, Patrick also spoke on the record to say children in failing public schools should not be denied the same right as families who can afford better schools for their children.

"In Texas if you're rich, you have school choice," he said. "It's called sending your kids to private schools. People also move to the suburbs in hopes of finding a better school. But for a large number of families in inner cities, they don't have money for private school or mobility to move to the suburbs because they take a bus to work. I say to those parents, 'Why shouldn't you have the same choice as a rich person in Texas?'"
By Marie Leonard
Marie came to Community Impact Newspaper in June 2011 after starting her career at a daily newspaper in East Texas. She worked as a reporter and editor for the Cy-Fair edition for nearly 5 years covering Harris County, Cy-Fair ISD, and local development and transportation news. She then moved to The Woodlands edition and covered local politics and development news in the master-planned community before being promoted to managing editor for the South Houston editions in July 2017.